Does Anybody Understand Debt?

Does anybody understand debt?  Some – but not many.  Today’s post is less of my normal extended prose and more of an outline.  I’ve been invited to speak at some writing classes here at the college and this is intended to serve as my speaking notes.


Background: What have you heard?

Krugman in New York Times

Harvey in Forbes

Background Info on U.S. National Debt

Brazelton:  The US CANNOT Go Broke


Numbers, Metaphors, and Stories


Get the terms right

Debt, Deficit, and tr/b/m-illions

$1,000,000,000,000

$1,000,000,000

$1,000,000

$1 trillion =  1 million times $1 million

Debt


Deficit

1984-present U.S. Federal Budget


Measuring the Debt

Counting Absolute Dollars of Debt Deceives. It's All Relative.


Three Bad Metaphors


Government is NOT a Household

Government is NOT like a Household!

Econproph: Once Again, Government is Not Like  a Household


 Govt Debt is NOT a Burden on future generations


Private Debt is NOT like Government Debt

Federal Reserve Breakdown of Household Debt

Foreigners Don’t Control


So…

A Sovereign Government Cannot “Go Broke”


Eurozone Countries Can “Go Broke”


Government Debt is Like Money that Pays Interest


But What About Inflation?  Printing money?

Inflation involves real demand vs. real supply, not just $


Test on Debt:  Interest Rates

Rates are historically low and staying low.


Are Gov. Deficits Necessary?

Yes, if you want to save money.

Forever?   Yes.

Econproph: But What About National Debt-to-GDP Ratio? Not a Problem, Really


Are There Limits to Deficits?

Yes, but related to full employment and capacity.


In Practice, Nobody Understands Money.

Well they understand yesterday’s money, not modern money.

That’s why they don’t understand debt.

We Have A Debt-Ceiling Deal. The Economy Loses.

Earlier this week the absurd and totally unnecessary debate in Washington over raising the national debt-ceiling came to an agreement, both houses of Congress passed it, and the President signed it.  Earlier this week I gave this metaphor for the deal, wondering why we need enemies with “friends” like our representatives in Washington.  Now that I’ve had a little more time to reflect, read some more on the details, comment on radio & TV about it, I think I was too easy on it.  It’s worse than it first appears.

This deal doesn’t “guarantee” that the U.S. government will reduce it’s deficit and maintain “solvency” (a non-concept for a sovereign country with a central bank).  Instead, this deal is more likely to guarantee that our economic non-recovery does, indeed, become at least a lost decade, if not a depression.  Right now I want to look at the economic impact of the deal.  In another post I’ll look at another casualty of the deal and the probably political-economy impact.

So what does the deal do specifically?  Well the details are fairly complex, even by Washington standards.  Right now the debt ceiling rises by $400 billion – enough to last for probably 3-4 months.  No real cuts will happen for maybe 60 more days.  Then starting in October 2011, which is the start of the government’s fiscal year 2012 budget (see here for definition of fiscal year), the action begins. Caps on spending start.  There are no tax or revenue changes in the deal.  It starts modestly with only $21 billion in spending cuts in 2012, although many of those cuts will be felt painfully by many citizens.  Students in graduate school in particular will feel the pinch in their pocket. Then in the remaining 9 years of the deal, there will be at least another $896 billion in reduced spending, amounting to about $100 billion less spending per year than currently planned.

This total of $917 billion in reduced spending is only the start though.  Congress is going to appoint a “special joint committee” of 12 members to recommend and additional $1.2-1.5 trillion in either spending cuts or tax revenue increases over the next 10 years.  (if you believe that committee with half Republicans will allow any revenue increases, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale).  If Congress doesn’t adopt those cuts, then Medicare payments, defense spending, and other discretionary spending would automatically by cut across the board. Either way spending gets cut another $1.2 trillion for the years 2013-2022.

This deal is supposed to raise the debt ceiling enough to get us through the end  of 2012 and the presidential election before the debt ceiling has to be raised again, sparing us this debate.  Don’t bet the your house on that though because House Republicans are betting they can keep this debate alive through then.  Basically Congress has created an elaborate mechanism in this law that increases the debt ceiling in several steps between now and the end of 2012.  But the way it’s done is that the debt ceiling keeps going up unless Congress votes to stop it (which the President would then veto).  It’s  a way for Republicans to keep talking about the debt and deficit, to keep recording “votes” against it, but all the time knowing that the debt ceiling will rise because it has to.  Pure politics at the expense of the country.

Right now the economy has over 9% unemployment.  Inflation is so low that deflation is actually the threat. The economy has effectively stalled or at least reached “stall speed”, threatening another double-dip recession.  This is not the time to be cutting spending.  To the degree spending cuts are necessary, they should happen when the economy is at or nearing full employment, not now.  At this time the economy needs all the spending it can find whether it’s from consumers, firms, or government.  And right now, firms and consumers are pulling back and keeping their wallets closed.  The government needs to step up and fill the gap.

So bottom-line, what should we expect?  I’ve seen several estimates from folks with more sophisticated econometric models than I can access.  My own back-of-the-envelope calculations and intuition say the drag on the economy is significant.  In 2012, this deal is probably going to take up to another 0.4 percentage points off of GDP growth.  The real damage starts in 2013 with a reduction closer to 1%.  Remember we’ve only grown at 0.8% rate so far in the first half of 2011, so 2012 will be close to zero growth and 2013 will likely be negative unless some other source of growth and spending can be found.  Looking around, it’s hard to imagine where that could be.  Instead I see nothing but possible negative risks: Europe imploding in a currency and austerity crisis, China having to pull back to slow their inflation, the housing mess in the U.S. is still bad, U.S. banks aren’t as healthy as they claim.

The estimates I’ve seen are similar.  Economic Policy Institute says the debt ceiling deal with cost us 1.8 million jobs in 2012 alone. The same article reports:

Top economists and CEO’s have also weighed in against the deal and said that GOP concessions to the Tea Party will cost our economy dearly. Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian warned that the deal will lead to less growth, more unemployment, and more inequality. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the plan “a disaster” and “an abject surrender” that will “depress the economy even further.”

The Center for American Progress’s Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden argue that while the deal “goes straight in the wrong direction,” Congress can redeem itself by using the so-called “super committee” mandated by the bill to focus on job creation. The committee, made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, is tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next 10 years, and must report a plan by Thanksgiving.

It’s noteworthy that J.P.Morgan Chase Bank’s research department, as representative of Wall Street as any, says that overall with this deal, government budget policy in 2012 subtract at least 1.5% points from GDP growth rate in 2012.  Since  it takes at least 2% growth in GDP to keep unemployment stable and we haven’t even had a single quarter of growth at more than a 4% rate since the end of 2006, things look grim for employment.

The cutters and austerians have won.  They will make a wasteland of the economy in the name of fighting the deficit.

What Happens If Government Debt Ceiling Isn’t Raised? 2 Things That Might, 1 That Will, and 1 That Won’t

Anybody who tells you they know exactly what’s going to happen if Congress doesn’t raise the government debt ceiling before next week is just making it up.  Reality is we don’t know for sure.  As Brad Delong notes (and Krugman and Nick Rowe), economists don’t even have nicely worked-out theoretical models of what happens if the government defaults.  It was just never considered.

Obviously, the devil is in the details. A lot depends on how the Congress deals with it  – the details of any “deal”. Many of the “plans” that have been floated on Capitol Hill to “deal” with the debt ceiling would most likely have consequences not much different from defaulting and not raising the ceiling at all.

And a lot depends on how millions of people think other millions of people will deal with it.  Another reason we have no good prediction of the consequences is because there are millions of investors worldwide involved. And each of them is making decisions based on what they think the other millions of investors will do.  It’s often tough to predict the behavior of 2-3 poker playing partners.  Predicting how millions of investors will place their bets is near impossible.

Most of the articles that have been peppering the news media speculating about the effects of default focus heavily on interest rates. Example: today’s NYTimes.  If you’re a banker, corporate treasurer, or hedge fund manager, that’s your biggest concern.  But there’s other more significant ways either default or any major spending cuts deal will affect everyday folks like you my readers.  There’s likely three ways either a default or a drastic cut in government spending (cut in deficit) will effect everyday folks.  So while we can’t predict exactly how things will play out, here’s a guide to where the possible dynamics are.  Here’s what we know:

  1. Interest Rates – Nobody knows for sure.  A majority of economists and bankers believe that a government default will raise interest rates on government bonds.  Accepted theories on interest rates then imply that all other interest rates would likely also go up a similar amount.  But this is far from certain.  Japan has had debt levels more than twice as high as the U.S. for well over decade.  Ratings agencies have down-graded Japanese debt.  But Japan still enjoys interest rates lower than the U.S.  I’ve read analyses by respectable economists and Wall Street types that pose plausible scenarios in which markets don’t raise interest rates at all, or that only government debt rates go up but private debt doesn’t.  I’ve even read scenarios wherein interest rates might slightly decline – although they are already so low there’s not much room to go lower.  Right now the markets aren’t showing any indication of higher rates. Anybody tells you they know what will happen to interest rates is telling you more than they know.  In fact, they’re telling more than what’s knowable now.
  2. Ratings on Government Debt – The bond ratings agencies, Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch, are threatening to downgrade US bonds from AAA to a lesser rating. Separate from any impact on interest rates, a downgrade might cause bond market turmoil and a lot of trading.  This would be because pension funds and other entities are often required by regulations and laws to keep a certain % of assets in AAA rated securities.  If US bonds are down-rated, then pension funds might have to sell their bonds and go into something else.  Nobody knows what that else might be or whether there’s enough of that something else to satisfy the demand.  As Krugman observed, when the bond ratings agencies speak, they have a lousy record.  They thought sub-prime mortgage securities were AAA because the banks said they were.  The agencies have been dead wrong about Japan.  Quoting Krugman: “when S&P or Moody’s speaks, that’s not the voice of “the market”. It’s just some guys with an agenda, and a very poor track record. And we have no idea how much effect their actions will have.”
  3. Government Spending Cuts & GDP. This one we know for sure.  If the government cuts it’s spending significantly at this time of high unemployment & low demand, it will slow the economy, depress GDP, and raise unemployment.    How much?  Here’s a quick rule-of-thumb, back-of-the-envelope calculation.  The GDP is now roughly $15 trillion.   Of that $15 trillion, $3.8 trillion comes from federal government spending.  $150 billion is 1% of GDP. So every $150 billion in spending cuts that the government does this year means a drop of 1% in GDP.  Right now, projections are that the government deficit in August alone will be close to $140 billion.  So, if the government has to suddenly cut it’s spending to match tax receipts (an instant balanced budget), it means the GDP shrinks by 1% every month.  In 2008-09, GDP only dropped by approximately 6% in total.  An instant balanced budget with no increase in borrowing will mean a recession more severe than 2008-09.  What will that do to unemployment?  According to estimates of Okun’s law, every 1% drop in GDP will bring a half percentage point increase in the unemployment rate.  So if we instantly balance the federal budget by cutting spending as many Tea Party members want, we will decrease GDP by 5% and unemployment will rise to around 11.5 – 12% by Christmas.
  4. Business Confidence.  Many Tea Party types and others are claiming that a balanced budget and no increase in the national debt will “restore business confidence” and unleash economic growth.  Hogwash.  Won’t happen.  Can’t happen. Hasn’t happened before.  This is the “growth from government austerity” pitch that has been made to Ireland in 2009.  Ireland did it and has only slowed further and had unemployment rise.  The Conservatives in the UK promised that budget cuts last year would stimulate the economy.  Hasn’t happened.  The UK economy slowed and is dead  in the water now.  In fact, we don’t have any recorded episodes of a major developed country stimulating it’s economy and reducing unemployment as a result. That’s because cutting spending is contractionary fiscal policy, which is, well, contractionary.  Government spending creates jobs and incomes just as much as private spending.  Right now, with high unemployment, we have too little aggregate spending in the economy.  Businesses are not spending because they fear the government’s budget.  They’re not spending because nobody’s buying – there’s no demand. Instead of wagering that government austerity will bring growth and employment, you’re better off betting on pigs flying.  The odds are better.

How to Tell If the Politician or Reporter Is Ignorant, Foolish, or Has a Hidden Agenda – Part 2

Another in the series.  See part 1 here. 

 

If the politician or reporter says something about “our grand children having to payoff the national debt”, it’s totally bogus.  The speaker is either ignorant, foolish or has a hidden agenda they want you to accept.  Sometimes they use phases like “saddle our grandchildren with debt” or “mortgage our children’s future”.  It’s all hogwash.  Future generations do not have “pay off” the national debt.  All they need do is pay the interest on the debt.  And since the economy is no doubt larger by the time they get here, it’s probably not a problem.  The baby boomers, those born from 1946 through 1965, supposedly inherited the huge national debt that was borrowed to pay for World War II.  None of those boomers, yours truly included, ever had to pay off that debt.  Again, I’ve said it before, but governments are not like households.  They don’t have to “pay-off” their debt.  Government debt is more like money that pays interest.

The latest example I’ve seen of this error came in today’s New York Times who quoted Senator John McCain:

 Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of the older generation, reflected the divide in an interview Thursday on Bloomberg TV.

“I think Eric Cantor is carrying out the mandate of last November, which was to stop mortgaging our children’s futures, while the president keeps talking about spending more money,” he said.

Private Debt vs. Government Debt

The Great Recession of 2007-2009, which has been morphing into a Depression, has been different from most recessions of the post-World War II era.  It has been what economists call a “balance-sheet” recession.  Normally (at least since World War II), recessions were the result of the central bank (The Fed in the U.S.) raising interest rates because it thought the economy was growing too fast or that inflation was too high.  This time, though, the triggers were a financial crisis brought on by a banking and financial sector that gorged itself on risky debt: subprime mortgages, derivatives, and bizarre financial products bought with borrowed money.  The financial crisis and resulting recession then brought an end to the debt game for ordinary households.  For thirty years or so, ordinary households, middle class folks, have struggled with declining real incomes and real wages.  To maintain a middle class lifestyle, ordinary folks took on huge debts: mortgages, home equity loans, credit cards, and student loans.  As deflation and unemployment hit in 2008 and the housing price bubble burst in 2007, the debt became unbearable, driving many to bankruptcy, foreclosure, and to drastically reduced spending*.

With this backdrop, it’s no surprise that debt has become an emotionally-charged word laden with negative feelings for most people.  People who are struggling with too much debt naturally are averse to the idea of debt. People who aren’t struggling with too much debt are resentful of those who do owe because they blame the debt-burdened for the recession (strange that the lender never gets blamed).

Unfortunately, politicians and news media with a political agenda have tapped into these negative emotions about debt to push their agenda to end the modern social support services that government provides.  They have done it by drawing false parallels between households and the government. Politicians from both parties have spent most of this year (and last) agitated about government deficits and debt. Even President Obama has done this in his July 3 radio address.  But the government is not like a household. There are many reasons why financially, governments are not like households. In this context, I am speaking solely of sovereign, currency-issuing governments with floating exchange rates.  This means Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and the other Eurozone countries are excluded.  I’m talking about the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil, and others. There are many reasons why governments are not like households ranging from tax powers vs. wages to unlimited life. But I want to emphasize one in particular: governments are the sole monopoly issuer of their money.  Households cannot issue money, only governments can.

So what does this have to do with debt?  It means government debt is not like private debt. Government debt need never be paid off.  It can be rolled-over.  As bonds become due, they are replaced with new bonds. Households can’t always do that. Governments cannot be “foreclosed” or “repossessed”.  Households and their goods can be.  Households and private firms can go bankrupt and default.  Sovereign governments only default when they choose to do so.  Historically the only known instance of a sovereign, floating currency issuing government defaulting was Japan in WWII, but that was deliberate.  U.S. and British banks held much of the debt and they were at war.  Some Republicans (example: Ron Paul) have recently been suggesting the U.S. default, but it’s still possible that grown-ups will prevail.  Politicians and ideologically-driven economists and news media have whipped up a frenzy about government debt as being evil.  But it isn’t.  In fact, government debt is necessary to the functioning of a modern financial system. It provides a safe, interest-bearing financial asset.

So if government debt isn’t evil or bad for us, how should we think about it?  Government bonds are best thought of as currency that pays interest and can’t be used at the 7-11 store. So rather than thinking of government debt as just another form of debt like private mortgages, corporate debt, student loans, and credit cards, it’s better understood as just another form of money. It’s a holding pen for idle money.

Much is made in the media about the fact that many “foreigners” hold US government bonds.  Again, the media is trying to create a scary feeling by drawing a false analogy to private debt.  If you’re a homeowner, the bank who holds your mortgage has some power over you, particularly if you don’t make regular payments.  The media want us to feel like some how the “foreigners” have power over our government because they hold the debt.  But that’s false. The foreigners can’t repossess or foreclose on the U.S. government, regardless of whether the government makes payments or not.  Again, government debt is not like private debt.  Private debt is the result of lenders making loans at interest with the goal of making a profit. But government bonds that are owned by “foreigners” are primarily owned by foreign central banks and banks.  They are used as safe reserves, not for the primary purpose of making a profit.  US government bonds are the modern banking world’s substitute for gold.  Foreigners want US bonds because they want a safe, secure asset that earns more interest than stacks of idle paper currency.  It’s not because primarily for profit-making.  If they wanted profits, they would use the money to make loans. Instead they want security.  That’s why they accept interest rates in the 1-3% range.

When somebody tells you that government debt is bad and harmful and we must do everything we can to reduce debt, even if it means high unemployment, remember they have another agenda that they aren’t talking about. It’s scare tactics.

* remember that drastically reduced spending might appear to help make the payments on debts, it also means that somebody else loses their job because their employer isn’t making a sale.  That newly unemployed person now has debt problems too.

How to Tell If the Politician or Reporter Is Ignorant, Foolish, or Has a Hidden Agenda – Part 1

One of the reasons my posts have been scarce* lately is because, frankly, I’m frustrated and nearly speechless at the foolish talk and nonsense that currently passes for news about the economy lately.  In particular, this year the politicians and reporters in Washington have been focused on the federal government deficits and debt.  We are being bombarded by total nonsense from politicians from both parties.  But the news reporting of the debates are even worse.  Unfortunately much of this nonsense is couched in serious tones amidst appeals to emotional triggers with people.  Result: folks are being misled.

So in a public spirited effort to help you sort out just when you’re listening to somebody who isn’t worth listening to, I’m starting a guide to How to tell if the politician or reporter is ignorant, foolish, or has a hidden agenda. This is part 1.

If the politician or reporter says anything about “reducing the government’s debt”, it’s time to stop listening.  They don’t know anything, including basic words in English.  They don’t know the difference between “debt” and “deficit” and the difference is huge.

Debt, in the context of the federal government, refers to the accumulated total of money that has been borrowed in the past by issuing bonds and T-bills.  Sovereign national debt, unlike private debts, do not have to be “paid off” now or ever.  When the bonds come due, the government issues new bonds to replace them.

Deficit, in the context of the federal government, refers to this year’s budget and whether taxes collected are less than the cash expenditures made.  If taxes collected this year are less than expenditures, the government (any sovereign government) can either borrow the difference by issuing new bonds (additional debt) or by creating new money (coins, paper currency, or bank reserves).  In the case of the U.S., the government has totally delegated the money-creation process to The Federal Reserve and promised that it would always borrow to make up the difference between taxes and expenditures.

There’s a relationship between Debt and Deficits.  The Deficit each year (assuming money creation is not used) will lead to more borrowing which will increase the total Debt outstanding.

So back to our politicians and reporters.  As official Washington tries to figure out how to politically raise the debt ceiling law (a foolish piece of legislation, but that’s for another post), reporters and politicians both have been reporting that talks are under way to “reduce the debt“.  NO!  AAAARGGGHHHH!  The debt isn’t going to be reduced, but the deficit might be.  To reduce the the debt, we would have to have a budget surplus, and that ain’t going to happen**.  What they are talking about is how to reduce the annual deficit (a foolish goal that’s doomed to failure, but right now I’m focused on the words).

At times it’s worse.  I’ve actually heard politicians (mostly Republicans) and reporters say on TV that they want to “eliminate the debt”.  Come on folks!  If you hear anybody say that, change the channel immediately.  Shield your children’s ears. A person who talks about “eliminating the debt” can’t even do first grade arithmetic.  The federal government debt is approximately $14 trillion.  The entire GDP of the U.S. is only a little more.  To eliminate the debt, the entire country, all of us, would have to produce and sell everything we’re doing now but then tax 100% of it and not consume a single thing – not even a single bottle of Coke.  

Suppose you went to your medical doctor because you thought you had an eating disorder and wanted to reduce your appetite. If the doctor said her goal was to totally eliminate your entire weight, you’d think her crazy, leave, and find an knowledgeable doctor instead of a quack.  But when politicians and reporters make equally absurd comments, we pay them and give them campaign contributions.

*neo-classical theory says they should be going up in price, but I’m still giving it for free.

** last time we were close to surplus was the last year of the Clinton administration (only time since mid-1950’s).  To have a surplus we would have to have full employment.  Even then, Republicans have shown (2001 and 2002) that they would continue to cut tax rates and tax collections faster and eliminate the surplus, putting us back in a massive deficit.